FORT POLK, La. — More than 500 Soldiers began testing for the Expert Infantryman Badge and Expert Soldier Badge March 23 on the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk after a two-week train up.On March 27, 160 EIB candidates and 17 ESB candidates “survived” to compete in the final event — a 12-mile foot march in the heat and humidity of Louisiana.When the 3-hour time limit for the march expired, 143 Soldiers had earned the EIB and 13 the ESB. The graduates received their badges in a ceremony on Fort Polk’s Honor Field that was streamed live on the JRTC and Fort Polk Facebook page due to social distancing constraints necessitated by COVID-19 concerns.Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, commander, JRTC and Fort Polk, joined the candidates for the march and said their willingness to conquer the grueling 12-mile foot march over an extremely difficult route and in energy-sapping humidity was a great professional accomplishment.“I’m very proud of them, both EIB and ESB,” Frank said. “It was outstanding vision by the Army to bring ESB in with EIB. Our next step will be to bring EFMB into this also — all three together.”Frank said comments from those who took part in the testing say volumes about the noncommissioned officers on JRTC and Fort Polk.“As you went around the site, what you saw were professional noncommissioned officers all across JRTC and Fort Polk,” he said. “It was a total effort across the installation.”As for why he showed up at 3 a.m. to join the Soldiers for the foot march, Frank said the answer was easy: “I love being with our Soldiers. This is the essence of the Army this morning — to come out and do a 12-mile foot march with these Soldiers and to see them out there cheering each other on. They’re congratulating each other; it’s the camaraderie of being a Soldier. You gotta love it.”First Lt. Preston Bentley, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was the first EIB Soldier to cross the finish line. He said when he saw he had finished the foot march in less than 3 hours it was a great feeling.“I never have to do this again,” he said.Bentley said the key for him was hydrating the day before the foot march.“It was pretty hot and humid, and I was sweating like crazy,” he said. “You’ve got to drink plenty of fluids and make sure your gear is tight and squared away. I know I’ll be grinning for a while.”Sgt. 1st Class Luke Katz, 2nd Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, Nebraska National Guard, said he and four fellow Soldiers from his unit were offered slots in the EIB testing.“The training was immaculate,” he said. “I loved it. You couldn’t ask for any better instructors or training; it was incredible. I can’t wait to take it back to Nebraska.”Katz said the foot march was difficult.“This ain’t Nebraska weather,” Katz said of the heat and humidity. “The humidity was definitely intense. The training was awesome. I could not have had a better day.”Cpl. Jason Cisneros, 2nd Bn, 4th Inf Reg, 3rd BCT, 10th Mtn Div, said that by the two-mile marker he was pouring sweat.“It was one of the hardest 12-milers I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t ever have to do this again. The next time I’ll be on the other side of the table doing the grading.”First Lt. Travis Meservy, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd BCT, 10th Mtn Div, said that because of the intense humidity, he was concerned he wasn’t making adequate time during the march.“It was pretty humid and I kept looking at my watch and wasn’t making as good a time as I had hoped,” he said. “It was also super dark so that made it hard to go quick. (Earning the EIB) is something I’ve been looking forward to. Last time I didn’t pass, but I made it this time.”Col. Kendall Clarke, commander, 3rd BCT, 10th Mtn Div, said his unit had about 200 Soldiers hoping to earn the EIB.“It was an absolutely incredible performance from our Patriots, Ops Group and other partners from other installations,” he said. “Today took me back to when I got my EIB in 1997. Conditions were a little different; I got mine in Egypt and it was 99 degrees, but there wasn’t humidity like there was this morning.”As he looked at the smiles on the faces of those who conquered the EIB or ESB crucible, Clarke said it brought back memories.“I’m still smiling from when I crossed the finish line as a young second lieutenant. It’s very euphoric. To be a part of this is a pleasure.”Clarke said he was not surprised that Frank joined the Soldiers in the march.“The CG, on Fortress Polk, is the senior action figure,” Clarke said. “The CG is not a Soldier — he is an action figure. You see the CG in the commissary, in our housing areas, in our barracks, out doing PT, so he is everywhere our Soldiers and Families are, so we’re used to having him around. But it’s refreshing to see him up front leading the pack, and showing the Soldiers what right looks like from privates to brigadier generals.”JRTC Ops Group Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Wilson said the EIB and ESB are badges of honor that designate their wearers as professional Soldiers.“(If a Soldier wears the EIB or ESB) I don’t have to worry about a machine gun not firing in combat because someone doesn’t know how to properly load it, or how to reduce stoppage or correct a malfunction,” he said. “They’ve been trained, tested and proved their knowledge.”Wilson said as he watched Soldiers tackle the foot march, he remembered what it was like as a private 22 years ago when he earned his EIB.“You quickly put yourself in their situation,” he said. “You can’t let a 12-mile foot march keep you from this. When you reach that goal, you don’t take the smile off your face for a long time.”